Swift Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jonathan Swift’s cutting satiric voice harshly criticized the British government and forced England to examine its treatment of its Irish colonial subjects.

Summary of Event

In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote a novel intended to criticize the government of Great Britain, specifically the treatment of the Irish by the British parliament. Indeed, with the publication of Gulliver’s Travels (1726; originally entitled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships), Swift became the earliest British writer to use the emerging form of the novel as a vehicle for satire. Few later satires have matched the sheer savagery of Swift’s critique. [kw]Swift Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) [kw]Travels, Swift Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s (1726) [kw]Gulliver’s Travels, Swift Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in (1726) [kw]Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift Satirizes English Rule of (1726) [kw]Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift Satirizes English (1726) [kw]English Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift Satirizes (1726) [kw]Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift (1726) Gulliver’s Travels (Swift)[Gullivers Travels] Literature;satire Satire [g]Ireland;1726: Swift Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels[0680] [c]Literature;1726: Swift Satirizes English Rule of Ireland in Gulliver’s Travels[0680] Swift, Jonathan George I Anne, Queen

By the eighteenth century, England had dominated Ireland politically for five hundred years. In addition, since breaking with the Catholic Church and becoming a Protestant nation in the sixteenth century, the English had attempted at every turn to force Ireland to do so as well. Britain’s efforts to subjugate its island neighbor, however, had never been completely successful, and the Irish Catholic Church;Ireland remained resolutely Catholic. The Irish population, moreover, remained mired in resentment of its ever-increasing poverty, while the agricultural and mineral wealth of Ireland left its shores in British ships. Swift, a lifelong Irish patriot, Patriots;Irish independence used his pen to further the cause of Irish nationalism. Nationalism;Ireland In all his literary works—whether poetry, fiction, or nonfiction—Swift showed such an overwhelming, passionate attachment to Ireland that he came to be called the Hibernian Patriot.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, and a prominent member of the British Tory Party from 1710 to 1714, Swift was a leading member of the English government. He was dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin when Gulliver’s Travels came out, and he decided to publish it anonymously, because the book severely criticized so many prominent political figures. For example, the characters of the Low-Heels and the High-Heels were meant to represent Britain’s principal political parties, the conservative Tories Tory Party;Whig conflicts Whig Party;Tory conflicts and the more liberal Whigs. The devilishly cruel, small-minded emperor of Lilliput represented King George I, while the ridiculously shrill and controlling empress of Lilliput corresponded to Queen Anne, who had been responsible for Swift’s lack of advancement in the Church of England and for his lifelong banishment to Ireland.

Although he suffered great disappointment over his assignment in Ireland, Swift worked hard for his church in Dublin and fought for the cause of Irish freedom against the Whigs. The Whigs tended to treat Ireland as a subjected colony instead of as a country in its own right. Gulliver’s Travels became one salvo in Swift’s ongoing battle, as he created the character of Gulliver and the fantastic foreign lands to which he travels in order to represent satirically the principal players, situations, and events in British-Irish relations.

Part 1 of the novel is set in the land of Lilliput, Lilliput (Swift) where the inhabitants are merely six inches tall and Gulliver, whose name sounds like “gullible,” seems to the Lilliputians to be a “Man-Mountain,” representing in Swift’s estimation a typically proud English middle-class man. The exceedingly prideful Gulliver becomes enmeshed in Lilliput’s court politics and constantly fights with the court ministers over matters both petty and important. Of particular note is the way Lilliput treats its island neighbor Blefescu, which it threatens to enslave after it discovers the military might of their “giant weapon,” Gulliver.

Part 2 takes place in Brobdingnag, a land of giants where it is Gulliver who seems six inches tall in comparison to the huge Brobdingnagians. Swift continues his commentary on English politics, but in Brobdingnag, he represents them not as they are but as they should be. The giant king is a humane and fit leader who treats his subjects well, as Swift would have the British king treat the Irish. Gulliver describes England to the Brobdingnagian king, blindly going to great lengths to explain the insidious British court policies to the monarch, unaware that his description reflects badly upon England. Indeed, Gulliver is proud and cruel, very much like a corrupt Lilliputian minister. Of particular note in the novel’s second part is the poor Brobdingnagian farmer who sees in Gulliver a way to earn money. Swift portrays the effects of poverty, like those experienced by the people in rural Ireland, which force people to behave in ways they might not otherwise.

Part 3, which analyzes the scientific observations of the eighteenth century, takes Gulliver to Laputa, whose inhabitants—cruel dictators over their colonies in the manner of the British over Ireland—are meant to represent the British Royal Society, which Swift sees as engrossed in nonsensical speculations. The Laputans live on a floating island, dominating those who live below them. In the event of rebellion among the ground-dwellers, the dictators cause their island to hover over the offending area, so the rebels are deprived of sunlight and rain. If absolutely necessary, moreover, the island can descend to Earth, crushing all life beneath it. This vile means of control is used only as a last resort, because the Laputan king does not want to lose the income from his colonies.

The colonial capital city of Lindalino, representing Dublin, is portrayed as being in revolt during Gulliver’s visit. This rebellion formed the centerpiece of Swift’s allegorical account of the Irish campaign against England’s attempt to introduce a debased currency into the country. The residents of Lindalino erect a tower with a large pile of “combustible fuel” to set the island afire if it attempts to descend on the city. In a manner of speaking, this was a threat against George I: Swift indicates that if England were to carry out its plan to debase Ireland’s currency, a huge rebellion in Ireland would result.

In the final part of the novel, Gulliver arrives in the land of the Houyhnhnms, an ideal race of intelligent horses he comes to love. Their neighbors, the Yahoos, are this land’s humans, but they run wild like beasts and sleep in kennels. Early scholars speculated that Swift referenced the Irish in his savage depiction of the Yahoos.

Significance

Gulliver’s Travels, with its many veiled references to English colonialism, British-Irish conflicts[British Irish conflicts] Irish-British conflicts[Irish British conflicts] represented an extended critique of Ireland’s treatment by the British government. It arguably helped to contribute to the general tensions and dissatisfaction in Ireland that would, after similar rebellions in America and France, bring about a brief and unsuccessful Irish rebellion at the end of the eighteenth century. The novel also participated in a significant British literary phenomenon, whereby politicians who could not be attacked or even discussed directly were represented in the form of fictional characters. Indeed, when Samuel Johnson began writing reports of British parliamentary debates ten years later in Gentleman’s Magazine, he disguised those reports as tales of the Lilliputian senate.

As well as decrying the plight of the Irish, Swift’s novel may be seen as part of the larger project of criticizing British imperialism Imperialism;British as such. Gulliver’s Travels shed light on the corrupt nature of the British court, the nation’s revolting colonial policies, and the pride of British subjects, who, Swift maintained, remained blind to the evils of colonialism. The overly proud yet nearsighted Gulliver became the vehicle through which Swift portrayed all that was wrong with the English mindset. This portrayal emphasized the contradictory nature of that mindset, as well as the extent to which British pride and arrogance caused great strife and poverty in the colonies, particularly in Ireland.

Gulliver’s Travels also led the way for Swift to write Children;in literature[literature] A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public Modest Proposal . . . , A (Swift) (1729), Literature;children considered by many to be the best satire ever written in English. In it, a respectable Whig businessman proposes that one manner of solving Ireland’s overpopulation problem and England’s constant need of succulent meat would be for the Irish to fatten their children for English consumption in the form of food. Like Gulliver’s Travels, it caused a great furor, bringing even more attention to the dire situation of the Irish.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fauske, Christopher J. Jonathan Swift and the Church of Ireland, 1710-1724. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2002. Explores many aspects of Swift as an Irish writer and in particular how his role as a man of the cloth influenced his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferguson, Oliver Watkins. Jonathan Swift and Ireland. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962. This scholarly book focuses primarily on Swift as both an Irishman and an Englishman, on the influence of Ireland on his political and personal life, and on the creation of his many literary works, including Gulliver’s Travels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Richard Ashe. Swift in Ireland. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976. This concise work discusses Swift’s activities in Dublin against the background of the political turmoil of the times. Addresses Ireland during the creation of Gulliver’s Travels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMinn, Joseph. Jonathan’s Travels: Swift and Ireland. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994. Fully illustrated account of Swift’s travels throughout eighteenth century Ireland. The book demonstrates Swift’s deep commitment to the improvement and well-being of Ireland and the Irish people, illustrating how Swift’s many long solitary journeys through Ireland on horseback influenced the creation of his solitary hero, Lemuel Gulliver, and his love of solitary travel.

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